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Activists at COP26 Honor 1,000+ Environmental Defenders Killed Since Paris Accord — 1 in 3 Indigenous

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Activists held a memorial in Glasgow for those unable to attend this year’s U.N. climate summit: 1,005 land and environmental defenders who have been murdered since the 2015 Paris Agreement. One in three of those defenders killed was an Indigenous person. This comes as 2020 was the most dangerous year on record for environmental and land defenders. We speak with Andrea Ixchíu, a Maya K’iche’ leader, journalist and human rights defender based in Guatemala. Ixchíu says that the Guatemalan government, influenced by transnational corporate interests, has launched an assault on Indigenous land defenders: “They [Indigenous leaders] are not allowed to be in their communities defending their land and their territory because of the militizariation.” Speaking on COP26, Ixchíu says, “We do not just want to be observers,” and “If you want to create more solutions to the climate crisis, it’s really important to give land back to Indigenous communities.” We’re also joined by Global Witness senior adviser Louis Wilson, who helped organize the memorial and discusses the cases of murdered South African activist Fikile Ntshangase, who was a leading force in the fight against the Tendele coal mine before she was killed last October, and Óscar Eyraud Adams, a Mexican water activist killed last September as he fought for the water rights of the Indigenous peoples impacted by the excessive use of aquifers by large beer and wine companies.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Ocean” by Uliya, here on is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we bring you Climate Countdown. I’m Amy Goodman.

We go now to Glasgow, where activists held a memorial for those who were unable to attend the U.N. climate summit this year: the 1,005 land and environmental defenders who have been murdered since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. One in three of those killed was an Indigenous person. At the Fridays for Future mass rally in Glasgow, climate activists from Colombia talked about the murders of land defenders in their country.

CLIMATE ACTIVIST 1: We are climate activists from Colombia. And today we want to honor the social environmental defenders that have been killed in the last two years of no COP. Colombia is the most dangerous country to be an environmental defender in the whole world, and no one cares.

CLIMATE ACTIVIST 2: In our country, we say those who die defending life cannot be considered dead. We would like to invite you to join us in saying some of their names. We cannot say all of their names, because it would become night if we said all of their names. We will each name one environmental defender that was assassinated in our country and their story. After, we will say justice for this leader, and we would like you to answer back in unison, “Justice,” while raising your fist. Let us try it now.

Maritza Isabel Quiroz was a land defender and peasant leader. She was assassinated in Santa Marta in 2019. Justice for Maritza.

CROWD: Justice!

CLIMATE ACTIVIST 3: Juana Perea, she was an environmental leader and women’s organizer opposed to the Port of Tribugá, and she was assassinated in Nuquí in 2020. Justice for Juana.

CROWD: Justice!

CLIMATE ACTIVIST 4: Magdalena Cucubana, she was an Indigenous peoples defender from the Makaguán community, and she was assassinated in Arauca in 2019. Justice for Magdalena.

CROWD: Justice!

CLIMATE ACTIVIST 1: Yamid Alonso Silva Torres, he was defender of the Cocuy National Park, and he was assassinated in Boyacá last year. Justice for Yamid.

CROWD: Justice!

CLIMATE ACTIVIST 3: And many more, but time wouldn’t be enough to name all of them. That’s why we need the Escazú Agreement to be ratified, because it’s the link between climate justice and human rights, and it’s the only mechanism to protect them, because we won’t achieve any solution here at COP26 if we don’t defend the defenders.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as 2020 was the deadliest year on record for environmental defenders.

For more, we go inside the COP, inside COP26, the Conference of Parties, that U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. We’re joined by two guests. Louis Wilson is a senior adviser at Global Witness who helped write their report, “Last Line of Defence: The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against land and environmental defenders.” Also with us, Andrea Ixchíu. She’s a Maya K’iche’ leader, journalist and human rights defender based in Guatemala. She’s in Glasgow for the COP26 with the collective Futuros Indígenas. That’s Indigenous Futures.

We welcome you back, Andrea, to Democracy Now! and want to begin with you. Talk about those who couldn’t make it, not because of COVID, not because of the pandemic, but because they were murdered, over a thousand land defenders, water protectors, environmentalists, since the climate accord was signed in Paris in 2015.

ANDREA IXCHÍU: Thank you, Amy. I would like to start honoring the existence, the lives of these people that are taking care of forests, land, water, air, that are facing the effects of the climate crisis but also facing the violence that in countries like Guatemala is imposed by the Guatemalan government, by the extractive industries, that are not just causing the climate crisis but also perpetrating colonialist behavior in our territories and in our lands.

I am here also to say that there has been a lot of Indigenous people that has been put into prison, that is not allowed to be in their communities defending their land and their territory because of the militarization. As we speak, in the Maya Q’eqchi’ region of Guatemala, the community of El Estor is under a state of siege. We are worried about the life of Cristóbal Pop and a lot of other Indigenous leaders that are right now living in open resistance against the big extractive nickel mine that is being imposed in their communities, and Guatemalan government is protecting the interest of the Solway company in Guatemala to extract the nickel. And at this moment, the military people is going to the people’s houses. It’s on the street, militarizing their territories and their lands.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s stay in this community that you’ve just addressed, El Estor in Guatemala, the president of Guatemala, Giammattei, imposing a curfew that would prevent the kind of public gatherings, the protests that are taking place there. Can you talk about the fact that Giammattei actually came to the COP, and what message you have for him? But also, if you could talk further about how that’s enabled by countries like the United States?

ANDREA IXCHÍU: It’s really sad to say that the government, the president of your country is more worried about protecting foreign investments than the wellness, than the good living, than the dignified life for Indigenous communities and the people in Guatemala. So, what we have discovered also, that is related with this company and President Giammattei, is that he is receiving money from these companies, that there are corrupt acts that have been shown, and that’s also related with the long period of corruption scandals that had put different presidents of Guatemala under the protest of a lot of thousands of people. So, there is a necessity to call to President Giammattei to assume his responsibility with his own people, not with foreign investors. We are calling also him for his resignation, because he looks more like the CEO for this transnational company than actually the president of Guatemala.

We are demanding freedom from the journalists, communitarian journalists, that are part of independent media in Guatemala that have been put into threats because they were documenting the militarization and the violence. And also that it’s really important to say around all these mega projects, it’s that they are trying to say that they bring develop to communities, and that they’re trying to say that they are bringing good lifestyles to communities, but what we have been seeing and documenting in what it has been happening in El Estor since 1960s is pollution, is destruction of social fabric, of biodiversity, and also a lot of violence against the Maya Maya Q’eqchi’ people in El Estor, Izabal.

AMY GOODMAN: Your group, Futuros Indígenas, Indigenous Futures, talk about how the collective is navigating their way through this bureaucracy at COP26. We heard, for example, Greta Thunberg talking about this is a failure, this COP. And we’re going to be talking about the number of representatives of fossil fuel companies outnumbering any one single delegation from a country.

ANDREA IXCHÍU: Yes, it’s really sad that this COP was told that it’s going to be the most inclusive COPs of all. But what we have faced, traveling from Central America, from Mexico, to Glasgow, was really different. It seems like there was institutionalized bureaucracy for exclusion of Indigenous peoples, of Indigenous communities, of observers. So we’re calling into the attention of the UNFCCC mechanism so they can open up this for more participation of Indigenous communities. We need that the Indigenous leaders, that the Indigenous communities are actually seated, making decisions. We just do not want to be observers.

And also, something that had happened to us is that when we are trying to go inside of the negotiations as observers, we are seated outside of the rooms, asked to watch the negotiations on a screen. So, what made us travel all along Central America to Glasgow if we’re going just to be seated outside of the rooms to watch a screen? That’s something that you can do from your country. So, that’s not inclusion at all. That’s violence. And that’s why we are calling into the attention to say that. We decided to come to the COP because it’s really important that nothing is here happening in the name of the peoples without the presence and the participation of Indigenous peoples. So, that’s really important.

And we are also here to say that we are living solutions to the climate crisis. If you want to check on solutions on climate crisis, you need to check on what the Indigenous communities have been doing for thousands of years. We have the 80% of the remaining biodiversity of the world. That means something. That means that in our ways of living and existing, Indigenous communities have ways of existing in the planet without destroying it. And what is sad, what is going on inside of the COP, is that some that are called the nature-based solutions to climate change are more colonialism in Indigenous lands. So, we are also calling to the attention of the leaders of the companies that are trying to sell new solutions to climate crisis, but that are actually going to be implemented with violence, without consultation in Indigenous communities, in Indigenous lands. Something that is really important to say is that the alternatives are there in communities, Indigenous communities, but also, if you want to create more solutions to the climate crisis, it’s really important to give land back to Indigenous communities.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to some of the people we’re talking about who have been murdered. This is Berta Cáceres. She was speaking in 2015 after being awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work protecting Indigenous communities, for her environmental justice campaign against that massive dam on the sacred Gualcarque River in Honduras. She was assassinated inside her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, about a year later.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] In our worldviews, we are beings who come from the earth, from the water and from corn. The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers, in turn protected by the spirits of young girls, who teach us that giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2019, we spoke to one of Berta Cáceres’s daughters, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, while Democracy Now! was at the Madrid COP25 U.N. summit. Laura was there to receive a human rights award and to speak at the Social Summit for the Climate, an alternative climate summit hosted by the activists. I asked her about the risks Indigenous women face in Honduras as they fight to protect the Earth.

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] Just like the land and our territory is violated and destroyed, so are our bodies. And that is something that is a constant in countries like Honduras. We know that we are at risk. We know that they kill us, that they rape us, that they attack our families. …

But I also believe that it is women who are carrying out resistance, leadership. My mom’s leadership is just one story, but when we go to other communities, we find great women leaders. And that also has to do with generating alliances that allow us to strengthen ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Laura Zúñiga Cáceres talking about the Indigenous work that is being done in Honduras, like that done by her assassinated mother, Berta. We’re going to turn now to 2020, to another continent. We’re going to turn to South Africa. Fikile Ntshangase was a leading force in the fight against the Tendele coal mine before she was murdered in October. Three unknown assailants entered her home and assassinated her. This is Malungelo Xhakaza, Fikile’s daughter, speaking to Global Witness earlier this year.

MALUNGELO XHAKAZA: My mom would receive anonymous calls, like from unknown numbers, and people would tell her that her day is coming. My mom was murdered on the 22nd of October in 2020. If I was home, I would have tried to do something, and then my son would have lost both my mother and I on that very same day. Before the mine talks were surrounding the community, we were a united community. We were happy. We were free to walk wherever you wanted to walk. You could be friends with anyone that you wanted to be friends with. We are afraid to even ask questions at a meeting about electricity, at a meeting about water, at a meeting about schools, because you don’t know what might cause you to be a target.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring into this conversation Louis Wilson, the senior adviser at Global Witness who helped organize the memorial outside COP26 in Glasgow with others to commemorate the murdered land defenders, and helped write their their report, “Last Line of Defence: The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against land and environmental defenders.” Louis Wilson, if you can talk about South Africa?

LOUIS WILSON: Absolutely. The case you’ve just described was just one of 227 murders of climate and land activists last year, but it was one that really stuck in the mind. Fikile Ntshangase was, by all accounts, an amazing leader, but also a grandmother. And she was murdered in her home as her grandson played outside. The assailants murdered her in cold blood, having asked her grandson Buyile if his grandmother was in. And he answered, yes, she was.

The case is also remarkable because there is no real ongoing investigation into Fikile’s murder. There had been no arrests. And the community there has been terrorized by the events. What’s really remarkable, though, is that Malungelo, who we just heard from, having had no previous interest in environmental activism, after what happened, has taken up the campaign. And I think that bravery, that courage in the face of that violence, can give us hope for a fight in the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you know, we see — we were just talking with Andrea Ixchíu about the nickel mine in El Estor, and then you have this coal mine in South Africa. Overall, talk about the threat to environmental defenders, and then go to the environmentalist in Mexico who was recently murdered.

LOUIS WILSON: Absolutely. So, the stories that we hear — and they’re each, in each instance, a tragedy, but as you look at the global picture, you see a common thread: The threats against environmental activists are caused by the same forces that are driving the climate crisis. So, the same force that is pulling minerals out of the ground, that is felling trees, that is polluting our air, is also causing violence and threats against activists.

So, the case you’ve just referenced in Mexico was just a month prior to Fikile’s death. An activist called Óscar Eyraud in Tecate, in northern Mexico, had been protesting for years water access. His community, an Indigenous community there, had been denied access to traditional water resources, at the same time as a big corporation, Heineken, was granted additional access by the local government. Óscar was murdered on September 22nd. And nobody, I think, would suggest that Heineken directly organized that killing, but it’s clear that they created the conditions that made that murder possible. And it’s very difficult to see that murder, or indeed many of the other 227 murders, taking place without that resource extraction by big companies.

AMY GOODMAN: And the violence getting worse? Can you talk about who’s funding these industries? In Mexico, you have documented 30 lethal attacks against land defenders in 2020, a 67% increase from 2019. Colombia, number one; second, Mexico — deadliest countries for environmental defenders.

LOUIS WILSON: Absolutely. Across the globe, violence is increasing. And really, we can understand the killing of land and environmental activists as another metric of the climate crisis. As we see these other indicators spiral out of control, you’re also seeing violence get worse. And what that tells us is that the climate crisis is also a human rights issue. I think at COP we’ve heard a lot of talk about scientific fixes, about accounting tricks that we can do to round off this climate crisis. And actually, this is a political issue. And without severe and drastic redistribution of political power and a putting human rights at the center of our response to the climate crisis, the violence will continue. And sadly, so, too, will the other metrics continue to spiral out of control.

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